Intriguing, sparsely populated, and largely unknown to foreign visitors, the Basque Country is a far cry from other Spanish regions.
Despite being one of Spain's most prosperous regions, the Basque Country largely remains a rural area where millenary traditions continue to be cherished. Basque people are proud of their heritage and this is evident in the region's numerous festivals, rural sports competitions, unique architecture, and fabulous gastronomy. Despite its relatively small size, the Basque Country is packed with natural and man-made attractions that exert an undeniable allure on visitors of all walks of life.
The Basque Country has a temperate oceanic climate. This means that rainfall is abundant throughout the year and that the four seasons are clearly marked. Summers can get considerably hot in the low-lying coastal areas, and temperatures of 30°C and above are not unheard of during July and August. The mountainous areas of the interior experience cool temperatures all-year-round, and snow is common between November and April.
Visitors should also be aware of the crowd factor when visiting the Basque Country in August, as the traditional festival known as Aste Nagusia (Big Week) is celebrated in all three provinces during this month. At other times of the year, a holiday in the Basque Country remains a pleasantly uncrowded experience.
Despite being the region's capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz is a tranquil city dotted with green spaces and boasting the right combination of traditional and modern architecture. Further north, the former industrial hub of Bilbao has become an outstanding example of urban regeneration and has a very active and vibrant cultural scene. Located only a few kilometres from the French border and boasting an unbeatable position on the shores of the Cantabric Sea, San Sebastian is mostly an undiscovered gem that has been dubbed 'the Paris of the Basque Country' due to its elegant architecture. This undeniably attractive city will be one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2016.
Outside its main cities, the Basque Country is a sparsely populated region dotted with small villages and closely-knit rural communities. Basque culture and mythology are strongly related to the natural world, and to this day Basque people are extremely appreciative and respectful of their natural environment. For your holiday in the Basque Country, this translates into vast areas of untouched mountain scenery, where sports like trekking, mountaineering, and rock climbing can be practiced. The Basque Coast is a great destination for windsurfing and other waters sports, as well as a favourite spot for those interested in active holidays.
Basque gastronomy is among the best-rated in the whole world. In fact, the region has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants, with over 40 of them spread across its three provinces.
The Basque Country's proximity to the sea and deeply rooted fishing tradition means that fish and seafood dishes are plentiful in the area. Some of the most popular are marmitako (a tuna and potato stew); bacalao al pil pil (cod served with a strongly flavoured garlic and olive oil sauce); porrusalda (a nutritious leek, onion, and carrot soup); lamb chops; braised chicken with chorizo; and txangurro relleno, (spider crab stuffed with green peppers, onion, and a white wine sauce).
Between January and March, the Basque Country's sidrerias (cider cellars) are a meeting point for locals and a great way to get immersed into the region's cultural and gastronomic traditions. The fixed menu consists of a cod-based dish, steak, local cheese, and a never-ending supply of Basque cider (a non-fizzy variety). Basque cheeses are widely acclaimed, especially the Idiazabal, Roncal, and Irati varieties.
If Spain is famous for its tapas culture, the Basque Country is renowned for its pintxos, miniature dishes served as snacks that no visitor should miss out on. This gastronomic specialty is a delightful way of getting acquainted with the local ingredients and with the region's devotion to good food.
Wine lovers are in luck too, as the southern part of the Alava province produces excellent Rioja wines. The white wine known as txakoli is another interesting option, and so is the herbal liqueur known as patxaran.
Size: 20,947 square kilometres
Population: 2,193,000 people
Capital city: Vitoria-Gasteiz
Provinces: Alava, Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa
Landscape: Lush green valleys, dense beech forests, sweeping beaches, rugged mountain scenery.